Wednesday, 25 March 2015
You don't have to be familiar with the television adventures of Shaun The Sheep to enjoy the woolly little guy's first big screen adventure. Given that Shaun is a stablemate of Wallace and Gromit, that is to say Aardman Animation, you can rest assured you're in reliably safe and entertaining hands (directing duties performed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak).
A mischievous sheep who causes his owner, The Farmer, and the farmer's dog, Bitzer, no end of trouble, Shaun is always leading his flock astray. This time, it's off the farm and into the big smoke following a series of events -- set in motion by Shaun's eagerness to upend the monotony of day-to-day life on the farm -- which has seen The Farmer stranded in town and without his memory.
So begins a near dialogue-free (fans of the TV show will know that no-one speaks in actual words) escapade where sight gag upon sight gag, and many a film reference fly by as Shaun, his fleecy friends, and Bitzer must somehow recover their human (who finds 15 minutes of fame via the social media maelstrom) whilst evading capture by the maniacal animal control guy.
Charming, funny and moving at a cracking pace, Shaun The Sheep Movie should delight young audiences, as well as those adults who are attuned to the Aardman sense of humour.
As always, these school holidays will be full of loud and colourful studio computer animation competing for your child's attention but in his own quiet way, Shaun is the one guaranteed to give you the most bang for your (jum)buck.
Monday, 23 March 2015
Walt Disney Studios Films
Everyone loves a princess, most especially Disney; their empire is built on them: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and of course, Cinderella. Classic animated films which have been adored for, and by, generations.
Now, in a bid to make what is old new again, Disney have begun making live-action versions of their back catalogue of animated classics, beginning last year with a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty; viewing the action from the point of view of that tale's villain, Maleficent (Angleina Jolie in fine form even if the film was not).
And now comes the turn of Cinderella -- directed by Kenneth Branagh and penned by Chris Weitz, best known for his gross-out work on the original American Pie -- to go to the live-action ball. And Branagh's certainly got the storybook look right. Shot on film (by Haris Zambarloukos), he captures every production (Dante Ferretti) and costume (Sandy Powell) design detail, while CGI fills in the magical blanks; turning pumpkins into stagecoaches and mice into thoroughbreds (thank you, Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)).
But technological magic can't do much to enliven proceedings. For all her beauty, Lily James' Cinderella is a bit of a pill. Not nearly as docile as Elle Fanning's Sleeping Beauty, she still views the world through rose-tinted glasses even after the death of her beloved father (Ben Chaplin), and her enforced servitude to her step family.
'Have courage and be kind' Cinderella repeatedly tells herself, so often in fact that you wish her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett, not nearly chewing enough of the scenery) would just drop the passive-aggressive routine and go all-out aggressive on her stepdaughter's petticoat-ed behind.
For strangely, and sadly, this Cinderella is much more classic than expected. Absent is any hint of feminism, the kind which propelled Frozen, that more recent of Disney princess animation, and Maleficent: no man was going to get the better of Jolie's lover scorned (Fanning's Sleeping Beauty, on the other hand, only ever had one fate).
Even 2007's Enchanted, where Amy Adams played a storybook princess come to modern day New York, knowingly played with the Disney fairy tales' antiquated notions of princesses, Prince Charmings and inevitable wedded bliss.
But marriage to a prince (Game of Thrones' Richard Madden) is all that awaits Cinderella in 2015. Sure he disappoints his court by marrying below his station and for love, and little girls, for whom this film is squarely aimed at, will eat it up with a spoon. Tweens and older, however, will be well aware that it's Cinderella who's being sold short, even if she -- and this gorgeously mounted production -- looks like a million bucks.
Thursday, 19 March 2015
War film or thriller? Yann Demange's debut feature (from a lean screenplay by Gregory Burke) could conceivably be called both. Set on the streets of Belfast during The Troubles, the mise-en-scene is very much war zone: riot gear, angry mobs and burnt-out cars. But when a British soldier gets left behind enemy lines, '71 quickly becomes a white-knuckle ride and we're with Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) every bloody step of the way as he tries to make it back to base undetected.
But it's not just the locals whom Hook has to avoid. Having inadvertently stumbled upon a fraternization plot with the local IRA by undercover British operatives (led by the severe-faced Sean Harris), it soon becomes apparent that our man on the ground will have to evade friend as well as foe if he's to make it back to the barracks alive.
Stabbings, gun shots and even a bomb blast all befall the put upon Hook, whose survival is as much to do with his training -- the film's opening scenes telegraphing the obstacle course he'll later encounter -- as it is the kindness of strangers. A plucky young lad (an impressive Corey McKinley) with ties to a Loyalist leader becomes his first ally before an explosive turn of events places him in the care of a father (Richard Dormer) and daughter (Charlie Murphy) (the latter with ties to a hotheaded IRA foot soldier, Sean Bannon (Barry Keoghan) with a trigger finger and itching to break away from his elders).
O'Connell, no stranger to physically bruising performances having played the martyred P.O.W. Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken ('71 was actually completed before that film), here plays a different kind of hero. Not sainted or impossibly indestructible, O'Connell's soldier feels every bit of pain inflicted upon his body, he even cries on more than one occasion. Die Hard in Belfast Demange's film is not. Hook has one hell of a night, and you're along for the nerve-racking ride.
Aiding in that effect is Tat Radcliffe's handheld cinematography*. It's enough to make Paul Greengrass envious while giving some audience members (and certain film critics) motion sickness, but it serves a purpose: putting the audience in the moment and in the rattled frame of mind of the protagonist. You'll leave '71 feeling almost as battered, if not as bruised, as Hook. (*Radcliffe apparently shot the night scenes on digital and the day scenes on film.)
'71 proves well worth the almost 14-month wait following its Berlin Film Festival premiere back in 2014; a wait presumably to leverage Jack O'Connell's role in the much more high profile Unbroken. A nerve-jangler bound to give your armrest -- or your partner's arm -- a workout, '71 not only confirms O'Connell's arrival as an actor, but announces the arrival of a talented filmmaker in Yann Demange.
Tuesday, 17 March 2015
"It is my name!" cries a defiant John Proctor at a pivotal moment in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials, Proctor refuses to sign his name to a guilty confession, one which is a lie: he's prepared to die for the truth.
The stakes weren't quite as life and death for Margaret Keane, which may be one reason why she surrendered her name so easily. The San Francisco-based artist agreed to live a decade-long lie by allowing her second husband, Walter Keane, to claim ownership her iconic works: paintings of big-eyed, waif-ish children.
All of this came to light in a 1960s trial after the marriage between artist and con artist had disintegrated, and it is this relationship which is the focus Big Eyes, Tim Burton's surprisingly prosaic re-telling of one of the great art hoaxes of the 20th century.
Working from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who penned Burton's delightful 1994 film, Ed Wood), Big Eyes is Burton's most straight-forward and dramatic film, well, ever. And it would seem that without his usual smatterings of the gothic and the macabre (nor regular accomplices, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter), the director is at a loss to inject any life into proceedings.
That doesn't stop Christoph Waltz as the gregarious Walter from chewing scenery like a gourmand who just ended a two-week juice cleanse, in a performance which overshadows if not outshines the solid (though not award-worthy) work being done by Amy Adams as Margaret Keane. Blonde but not mousy, Margaret, whose already abandoned one marriage, knows what she wants.
But one of the big problems with Big Eyes is that it's never fully explained why Margaret agreed to go along with the lie, and for so long. Money was an obvious factor: the Keanes were raking it in when the 'Big Eyes' works went from gallery art to kitsch sensation; the creepy-sad images appearing on all manner of printed matter and selling as fast as they could be produced.
There's also Walter's charismatic/bullying nature and the inherent patriarchal sexism of 1960s America, but none of this is explored in any meaningful way. Margaret agrees to the lie and spends the rest of the film biting her tongue, and her bottom lip in consternation.
In some ways Big Eyes mirrors Ed Wood. That earlier film is about an artist -- Edward D. Wood Jr. made B-films in the 1950s -- whose ambitions well exceeded his grasp (and talents); he's often credited with directing "the worst film ever made", Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). And Walter Keane is a similarly ambitious yet talentless man. He wants so much to be an artist, a success and a respected man, that he begins to believe the lies he's constructed.
That then begs the question: aren't Burton and his writers then committing another disservice to Margaret Keane, by making her husband the centre of attention? Margaret may have walked from an Hawaiian courtroom victorious and with her artistic authorship reinstated, but whose story is really being told?
Perhaps Keane would have been better served if Burton (apparently an avid collector of her work) had let the artist speak for herself, and a little more loudly
Wednesday, 11 March 2015
Essentially the Pinocchio story in sci-fi plating, Neill Blomkamp's third feature asks the question integral to most science fiction: what does it mean to be human? Or in the case of Chappie, the titular police robot turned sentient being, when does a machine's evolution lend it human status?
In 2016 South Africa, law enforcement is conducted by robot police produced by the Tetravaal Corporation (headed by Sigourney Weaver). Their creator is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who is on a personal mission to create artificial intelligence; one that will grow, learn and evolve as any human would. And into the 900th-odd day of his experiments, the idealistic young Dr. Frankenstein succeeds.
But like any birth, Chappie's is complicated and bloody. Within moments of making his breakthrough, Deon is abducted by a trio of low-level gangsters -- Ninja, Yolandi (their actual names; members of South African hip hop group, Die Antwoord) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) -- who have hit on the idea of taking one of the robot police officers for themselves to do their criminal bidding. And who better to help bend (i.e. reprogram) one to their will then the creator?
Thus Chappie (an impressive motion capture performance by Blomkamp mainstay, Sharlto Copley) is born in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of Soweto, where his low-life family who take charge of the robot's education will also wrestle with the robot's growing humanity, and their own consciences.
Blomkamp, again working from his own screenplay as he did with his impressive debut, District 9 (2009), and not quite so impressive follow-up, Elysium (2013), throws so much into the mix -- including Hugh Jackman's anti-A.I. ex-soldier -- that most of the working elements of Chappie are easily lost among the spare parts. With nods to so many other films -- Robocop, Short Circuit, Metropolis -- and the aforementioned literary influences, Blomkamp's film could easily be dismissed as pastiche. Like Chappie himself, the film is a hodge-podge of bits and bobs and not all of them well oiled or firing on all cylinders.
The star of the film is of course Chappie. Copley invests the robot with such innocence, wonder and heart that it's hard not to care for the little guy (once the initial Jar Jar Binks fears dissipate). While not quite in the Andy Serkis-Gollum-Caesar league of performance, it's a nonetheless impressive mix of voice acting, motion capture and CGI. Artificial intelligence may still be a ways off (as far as we know), but the future is now in film making.
Wednesday, 4 March 2015
It's around this time of year, in the post-awards season lull and those seemingly quiet months before US summer blockbusters flood the local multiplexes, that we often see a 'con' movie arrive: movies that trade in deception, twists and double dealings and all manner of misdirections.
In 2009 it was Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, and in 2013, Danny Boyle's Trance, with an amnesiac James McAvoy, which gave our grey matter a workout -- or a light jog, depending on your powers of deduction.
This year it's Focus, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and which more closely resembles Duplicity, with its attractive leads, sexy chemistry and ongoing tit-for-tat one-upmanship. Those attractive leads are Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who play Nicky and Jess, respectively; teacher and student in the art of the con.
We're not sure why master conman Nicky would want to take the novice Jessy under his wing (other than the obvious aesthetic reasons) but she soon blossoms under his tutelage and inevitable affections. But just as soon as the two seem to be falling in love -- the greatest con of all? -- he abandons her, heartbroken, in New Orleans following a well-executed Super Bowl sting involving a Chinese high roller (an energizing cameo by B.D. Wong).
Three years later and the pair's paths cross again, this time in Buenos Aires where Nicky is employed by a Formula-1 team owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), to dupe his competitors into thinking they've scored the formula for his super-fast fuel. Or some such. The details aren't as important as the interplay between Nicky and Jess; the latter realising that he may have made a mistake in letting Jess get away. But just what is she doing in Buenos Aires, and in the company of Garriga?
There's definite chemistry between Smith and Robbie, and it's the Australian, fresh off her Hollywood breakout role in Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, who shines here; making the most of what threatens to be a merely decorative role being by turns funny, smart and, yes, sexy.
Intentional or not, it's these romantic distractions which make Focus an enjoyable diversion as you wait for the inevitable other shoe to drop. It's a con movie, after all, so you suspect that at any or all times Smith's Nicky, and the directors (who also wrote the screenplay) may just be pulling the wool over our eyes.
That said, they don't always have faith in the audience's intelligence: explaining each con in elaborate detail afterwards to make sure we're paying attention, or simply paying attention to how clever they are.
No matter. Focus is a shiny, shimmery diversion which occupies your mind for enough of the time that it takes to lift 100-odd minutes of your life. You won't win big but you'll have at least been entertained by Focus, and at this time of year at the movies that's an impressive trick in itself.